WASHINGTON – During her 18-year gymnastics career, Dominique Dawes collected three Olympic medals and an unprecedented 15 individual national championships. But on Wednesday, Dawes performed a new routine on Capitol Hill, hoping to ensure girls will be able to follow in her footsteps.
Dawes, president of the Women's Sports Foundation, told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that a change last year in federal anti-discrimination law will set women's athletics back to "the days of Billie Jean King."
With the Winter Olympics set to begin next week in Turin, Italy, Dawes joined several notable women athletes and administrators on National Girls and Women in Sports Day to urge Congress to examine the law, known as Title IX, and reject the policy amendment.
"Efforts to weaken Title IX should not be supported by Congress," said Dawes, a 2002 University of Maryland alumna. "Our sons and daughters must have the same opportunities and encouragement to participate in sports and physical activity."
Title IX requires schools accepting federal funding to provide equal opportunity and resources to men's and women's sports.
At issue was a memo issued last March by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which enforces Title IX. The memo announced a "clarification" of the law allowing schools to show compliance by using an e-mail survey to gauge student interest in participating in certain sports.
According to the clarification, schools can show compliance with Title IX by demonstrating insufficient interest among students in adding a new sport. A low rate of response to the survey equates to a lack of interest.
Surveys conducted via the Internet or e-mail have been shown to yield skewed results, which would allow schools to skirt Title IX requirements, Dawes said.
"When you're a college student, you're not thinking of Title IX or saving your sport," Dawes said in an interview. "E-mails come in and are often deleted or go straight to the spam folder."
The Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, committee chairman, said he agreed the policy poses a problem for women's athletics and that Congress should examine Title IX.
"We've reached a point where we have to hold a hearing on Title IX," Stevens said. "If more women are going to get involved in sports, they should get more money."
Dawes forecast a dire future for women's sports if schools are permanently allowed to monitor interest in women's sports via e-mail surveys.
"(The state of women's sports) is not going to go back the way it was, but opportunities will be limited and funding will diminish," she said. "It'll return to the days of Billie Jean King, when women were seen as the opposition."
In what was billed as "The Battle of the Sexes," the then-29-year-old tennis star King beat 55-year-old Bobby Riggs in a nationally televised tennis match in 1973. King was in the audience for the hearing Wednesday.
Even under the previous compliance standard, many institutions did not provide adequate opportunities for female athletes, Dawes said. She called for the Department of Education to scrutinize schools' efforts at compliance more closely.
"Someone needs to step in," she said. "Other than words, is there action being taken?"
The latest version of the law has gone unnoticed in part because the memo was issued without an opportunity for input or public comment, Dawes and others testified.
"I do not believe the average citizen is aware of the issues at stake," Dawes said. "People see women's sports in college, and they think everything's OK. At the same time, there is no media coverage."
Myles Brand, president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, has stated his opposition to the policy. The NCAA Board of Directors, which passed a resolution against the use of the survey in April, has called for the memo to be rescinded.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.